Can Cruise Lines Bounce Back from COVID-19?

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There are few industries that haven’t been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Some, though, have felt a much greater impact that others – travel and tourism, for instance.  Airports and hotels have been basically empty for the past two months, with business and personal travel nonexistent. 

While many businesses are starting to slowly re-open, there are many questions around how quickly the travel and tourism industry will start to rebound.  Even as Disney and Universal are both getting ready to partially open theme parks this month, it will be a long and painful process that will require constant monitoring, evaluation, and adjustment.  Even then, it will be a long and painful process largely dependent on what level of risk consumers are willing to take.

A Harris poll a couple of weeks ago shows how long it may actually be until some of these activities, like staying in hotels, going to casinos, seeing a movie, flying, and others, start seeing high interest again.  For many of these activities, 50-60% of see a six-month window as realistic.

The cruise industry, though, is a little different.  While 40% so say they may be willing to get on a ship within 6 months, 28% say it will be more than a year, and 22% say they will never take a cruise again.  Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, considering what we saw happen on several ships during the early days of this pandemic.

Realistically, what it means is cruise lines have a lot of education, training, and technology investment to undertake in order to convince customers the risk level is sufficiently low.  Norwegian Cruise Line says it has been actively engaged in enhancing its health and safety standards and protocols, with passenger safety at the top of its list of priorities.

“We have spent the past months working with experts in their respective fields, world-leading safety vendors and our internal safety and medical teams, to ensure your safety so that you can explore the world with the ultimate Peace of Mind.  We continue to work closely with the CDC and are developing even more stringent protocols to meet and exceed their standards once those have been finalized.”

Harry Sommer, President & CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line

It’s a pretty generic statement, and alone, it’s probably not going to have a huge impact on cruise bookings.  But, the company has indicated several specific steps it has taken to ensure the safety of its passengers and crew.

Enhanced screening protocols – All guests will undergo an enhanced pre-embarkation health screening, and those considered at risk will undergo additional screening.  Touchless temperature checks and continuous monitoring of guests and crew throughout the voyage will help identify potential health issues, offering an additional layer of prevention and protection.  That includes temperature checks when returning to ships from ports of call, prior to entering dining areas or other public spaces, and prior to disembarkation.  All crew will undergo extensive screening prior to embarkation and constant monitoring throughout the voyage.  NCL is also exploring on-board testing capabilities.  If testing solutions like the breathalyzer-style technology being tested by  InspectIR Systems is proven effective, it could change how consumers feel about cruises.

Increased sanitation measures – All ships are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected prior to every voyage in accordance with company protocols, which are developed in partnership with CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program.  Embarkation terminals will be sanitized continuously, and, where possible, fogged before and after each embarkation and debarkation.  All staterooms, suites and public areas will be cleaned, sanitized and disinfected at an increased frequency, including the use of Electrostatic Spray Technology.  That includes continuous disinfection of public and high-traffic areas, as well as elevators.  Guests will be encouraged to follow appropriate handwashing and other safety protocols. Even before this pandemic, NCL was already provided sanitizer to passengers when entering many public areas, including dining facilities. 

For those of you wondering how dining may be impacted, the NCL says its buffets and beverage stations will be full service.  That likely means passengers will not be allowed to serve themselves, which is also something the cruise line was doing at most of its buffet stations previously.

New air filtration – Installation of medical-grade H13 HEPA air-filters across its fleet.  H13 HEPA is one of the highest grades of particulate air filter, removing 99.95% of all particulates 0.1 microns or larger – COVID-19 is 0.125 microns (25% larger).

Responsible social distancing – Guest capacity will be reduced, and NCL will implement staggered embarkation and online check-in, and is working with port and government authorities to define the best and most appropriate procedures.  In fairness, these, too, were things the cruise line was trying to do previously – the challenge is too many passengers don’t follow instructions, which makes enforcement the bigger issue. 

NCL says all of its onboard activities will continue to be available, thought they also weill be operating at reduced capacity, or modified to ensure safe social distancing.

Enhanced medical resources – Medical centers on ships will be equipped with the latest testing kits and supplies, and will have increased staffing.  Increased supplies will include rapid diagnostic COVID-19 tests, increased inventory of oxygen equipment, increased supply of vaccinations (this is, of course contingent upon a proven and available vaccine, which currently doesn’t appear imminent), additional medication for COVID-19 treatment.  Each ship will have dedicated isolation areas, should that need arise.   

NCL will be adding an onboard Public Health Officer, who will be responsible for sanitation and outbreak prevention protocols, and will monitor the day-to-day activities around health and cleanliness in accordance with CDC standards.  Crew members will also received enhanced health and safety training and education.

Extended ship-to-shore safety – NCL is also working with local destinations and tour operators it uses to ensure its health and safety measures can be effectively extended to ports of call.  It says it will only visit safe, open ports of call, which may, of course, require changes to cruise itineraries. 

“Moving forward, we expect to implement additional safety measures as we continue working with the CDC, global health organizations and domestic and international government agencies.”

Harry Sommer

There’s a lot to be pleased with here, especially if you’re a fan of cruises, and the fact that NCL has already been doing some of these things makes it easier to believe it’s serious about adding additional measures.

Technology should play a role, especially when it comes to disinfecting surfaces and spaces, especially as so many companies are developing UV-C solutions, which are already being used on some airlines.  Mandatory contact tracing could also be an option for passengers, to help contain the spread of COVID-19 or any other virus on ships.  Some people will cry privacy, but, frankly, they can find alternate plans.

But, given the confined nature and people density of cruise ships, it may not be realistic for passengers to start booking again until a vaccine is developed and available.  The truth is, that is likely the catalyst for most opt-in activities to return anywhere near normal. Will cruise lines get there? Probably, but they will have to work harder at it than most other industries.